As the sun began to set closing stages of Saturday’s opening day of time trials for the Indianapolis 500, the scene on pit road was one of bedlam.
Teams sprinted around. Crew chiefs and engineers crunched numbers, looking for that one critical adjustment to put them over the top.
Drivers looked at the time charts nervously, and in some cases hopped into their cars in hopes of returning to the racing surface.
In the final minutes, a mass of machines made their way to the end of pit road, waiting for one last stint on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The thing is, these weren’t the drivers in the back of the field. The ones scrambling to their cars were some of the best in the paddock.
With only 33 cars attempting to make next Sunday’s Indy 500, Saturday wasn’t the traditional bump day that the Month of May is known for. However, INDYCAR’s attempts at tweaking qualifying resulted in a day that was equally dramatic, if not as emotional.
Looking to add intrigue to qualifying, INDYCAR tweaked the format to create a pseudo Bump Day. However, the bumping wouldn’t come at the back of the pack, it would come at the very front.
INDYCAR implemented a new “Fast 9” qualifying format for the Indy 500. The idea was simple; the top nine drivers at the end of day one would each advance to pole qualifying on day two, while the rest of the grid would qualify for 10th-33rd.
Whether the format will add any intrigue to Sunday at the Brickyard remains to be seen, but on Saturday, it created the kind of drama the track hasn’t seen for qualifying in a few years.
James Hinchcliffe set quick time for the day after being forced to return to the 2.5-mile oval for a final effort. Will Power and Helio Castroneves snuck their way safely into the group as time slowly ticked away.
Marco Andretti made his way onto the track with less than 10 minutes left and jumped into the Fast 9 in ninth, only to be bumped just moments later by teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Then, one second before the closing gun was shot, Mikhail Aleshin made his way onto the racing surface.
Four blistering laps later, he, too had made his way into the top nine at the expense of rookie Alexander Rossi.
What could have been a dull, uneventful day of qualifying turned into a dramatic afternoon courtesy of INDYCAR’s changes.
“This is the hardest qualifying I’ve ever done at this place,” said Will Power after cracking the top nine late in the going. “It was very hairy on the last lap. We got in line at the right time. I think the conditions were really good. I’m sure we’re getting in the Fast Nine, so that’s really good. It was nerve racking, sitting there and wondering if we had the speed and all that. We’d been knocked out of the nine, so I am just happy to be there, honestly.”
“The most nerve-wracking moments in this whole process was sitting in the car because you can’t do anything about it – switching lanes, you don’t really know what’s going on,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay. “When you’re out there driving it, you’re in control of your own destiny. That was a pretty hairy few laps there; I was holding my breath the whole way.”
The drivers and organizations at the front of the grid worked tirelessly to try to find an edge on each other, while the underfunded teams at the back were able to make their attempt and save precious resources.
No traditional fan of the IndyCar Series is going to tell you they didn’t want to see a larger entry list than 33 cars for the 100th Running of the Indy 500. A traditional bump day would’ve brought back memories of the IndyCar of old, and given extra emotion to a weekend that’s largely forgotten after the one that follows it.
Still, it can’t be denied that watching Aleshin and Hunter-Reay drive their way into contention for tomorrow’s pole in the waning seconds brought every bit of drama that bump day used to.
How the rest of the week will go remains to be seen, but on a warm Saturday evening in Indianapolis, INDYCAR’s new qualifying format appeared to be a success.
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